“Takfir” Can Cut Both Ways

Youssou Ndour, the Senegalese musician who now serves as the country’s Minister of Culture and Tourism, made headlines in the Senegalese press this weekend for saying (French), “I sincerely think that these people who are destroying the tombs of saints and historic sites [in northern Mali] are not Muslims.”

Statements like Ndour’s, denying membership in the Muslim community to Muslims who practice violence against other Muslims, are not rare. Governor Ibrahim Gaidam of Yobe State, Northern Nigeria, has made similar remarks about the rebel sect Boko Haram:

We cannot call these people Muslims. They are transgressors, who commit heinous crimes, which are totally condemnable. Islam is and will remain a religion of peace and even the Holy Prophet Muhammad (SWA) lived peacefully with followers of other faiths. Therefore, no one can justify attacking places of worship belonging to other faiths as Islamic.

I think such statements merit reflection on two levels. First, these statements challenge us to think about who is and is not a Muslim. As an outsider, I prefer to avoid taking stances on such issues, but we should at least question our assumptions and our habits. It is odd and tragic how we sometimes rush to question the purity of someone’s Islam when they wear an amulet or put up a poster of their sheikh, but we don’t question it when they shed blood.

Second, and closely related to the preceding point, we are reminded that talk of excommunication can cut both ways. Even as the media sometimes presents Boko Haram and Mali’s Ansar al Din as some kind of ultra-Muslims, some other Muslims feel that these groups have forfeited their claims to the faith entirely. One must be careful with terminology, of course: I do not consider Ndour and Gaidam’s statements equivalent to formal declarations of takfir (excommunication). But when analysts use “takfiri” as a synonym for “jihadi” or “terrorist,” they risk implying that such groups are the only ones willing to be exclusivist, and they risk sacrificing historical and contextual depth. Over time, Muslims of many different theological and ideological stripes have been willing to deny the Islam of their rivals – even the Sufis who are so often assumed to be only targets of excommunication, never its proponents.

What is your reaction to Ndour’s statement? What effects do you think it might have on audiences in Senegal and Mali?

9 thoughts on ““Takfir” Can Cut Both Ways

  1. It depends more on what people in an actual position to decide ‘Muslim-ness’ have to say and I’m certain that both Boko Haram and Ansar Dine have plenty of officials who are willing to say that they are indeed Muslims and that this is in fact what Muslims should be doing, much the same as the predecessors to Al Qaeda in Egypt did forty years ago. Who is ‘right’ about Muslim identities seems to be more if it’s viewed as angry fanatics stirring up trouble and harming society or desperate faithful fighting against a harsh and unfaithful government.
    Personally I generally consider the people in those groups to simply be extremely radicalized (or conservative depending on specific group, nation and era) Muslims. Of course it has far fewer political indications for me, living in the U.S. and not a nation going through terrorism or civil war. I’m reminded of the blanket refusal by Indian Muslims to allow the Mumbai attackers to be buried in local cemeteries.

    • Well said, though I would say no one, given structures of religious authority in Islam, has final say over who is and isn’t a Muslim. It’s all contested.

      • I meant to say, given how different structures of authority in Islam work, ie that there is no centrally recognized authority by all Muslims.

      • I was referring to the national and sub-national authorities. Internationally Muslim religious leaders/groups are uncertain and it depends on who has support where. The people of Mali (Tuareg or otherwise) might not listen to someone making statements about Nigeria.

      • For some reason I keep seeing a ‘Granten’ on this thing. The problem of sharing the few computers.

  2. No one disputes whether the Zamfara governor (who ordered the amputation of a cattle thief’s hand) for “stealing a cow” or the authorities in Katsina State (who ordered Amina Lawal to be stoned to death for “adultery”) or the deputy governor of Zamfara state (who ordered a “death sentence fatwa” on Isioma Daniel for “insulting the prophet”) are “Muslims”.

    Unlike the Niger Delta Militants, primary contact with Boko Haram is established via political and religious channels – Muslim scholars who not only recognise them as Muslims, but speak to them as Muslims, negotiate with them.

    There is a virulent and sadistic strain of Salafist Islam that is a direct outcome of Bin Laden’s activities and the influence of extreme Saudi-sponsored mullahs.

    The uncomfortable truth is that Islam still remains a more violent, less tolerant and less in tune with the modern World than either Buddhism or Christianity. Thus it is far more likely to be abused by angry young men than any other contemporary major faith tradition.

    And it is being abused, in virtually all habitable continents.

  3. The claim that “Buddhism” is somehow less prone to being politicized and radicalized is simply factually inaccurate. Sri Lankan and Burmese Buddhists have used their faith to justify radicalized ethnic politics.

  4. I think the issue relates primarily to chapter 9 of the Qur’an. “O
    Prophet! Strive hard against the unbelievers and the hypocrites, and
    be firm against them. Their abode is hell . . .” They are condemned for
    claiming “they said nothing” when in fact they “blasphemed.” The word
    Yusuf Ali translates as “blasphemed” is the word for “disbelief.” Thus,
    disbelieving Muhammad’s call to jihad is “blasphemy” (verses 73-74).
    This is a powerful argument for a radical to throw in the face of a moderate
    Muslim. To not believe in the necessity of violent jihad to establish the
    political hegemony of Islam over the world is “blasphemy.” This is made
    the worse because “they did it after accepting Islam” and particularly “after
    he bestowed on them of His bounty,” which would seem to be the largess
    of the war booty. Ibn Kathir explains that after these gifts were given the
    hypocrites were “stingy” in the giving of gifts of alms, contributing to the
    Islamic war treasury.
    Muhammad declares war on these false Muslims, “Strive hard against the
    disbelievers and the hypocrites . . . their abode is hell” (verse 73) This is the
    foundation of “takfir,” the declaring of a Muslim to be a non-Muslim, which
    makes them legitimate targets for jihad. Chapter nine has thirty references
    to “not believing” (kafara) and “unbelief” (Kufr) or “unbelievers” (kafir,
    kafirun, kuffar, kawafir), and most of these references are to those who called
    themselves Muslims. Confession of faith is to join the Islamic army with
    total fealty to the Prophet or his emissary as military leader. This is why the
    confession of faith is so short and to the point. It is an oath of allegiance to
    the Islamic army. Prayer gatherings in the mosque are essentially the muster
    ground for the army, which is why the lines are straight, exclusively male
    and there are no seating materials to hinder the army from marching out of
    the mosque to battle. Almsgiving is directly involved in the financing and
    rewards for military campaigns. When the Holy Land Foundation “charity”
    in the United States provides financing to Hamas for suicide bombers (which
    they would call freedom fighters) they are being fully obedient to the “sunnah”
    or practices of the Prophet as clearly enunciated in the Qur’an itself. This is the basis of suicide bombers blowing themselves up in exclusively Muslim contexts. But frankly, I think Muslims are getting tired of this. The mutual excommunication slogans are convincing an increasing number to kiss Islam goodbye. I weep for my Sufi friends who are being killed, and not just in Mali. Radical Islam must first win, and then it will lose, because it simply doesn’t work.

  5. Pingback: A Yoruba Muslim Leader Denounces Boko Haram | Sahel Blog

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